Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Steven Spielberg's Munich was greeted with trepidation by the press last December, as almost nobody knows how to handle a committed political movie. In the commercial moviemaking realm only an institution like Spielberg can afford to even consider confronting as hot a topic as the Israel-Palestine conflict, and that he should do so in such a balanced manner is remarkable. Spielberg's career has been spent chasing a not-always-mature run of escapist "fun" movies, interrupted here and there by attempts at serious subject matter that don't always appeal. For the record, and just to place my opinion in the spectrum of Spielberg appreciation, I like his movies when they don't impose simplistic ideas of family onto complex stories, and when they're not insultingly wrong-headed, as with The Terminal of a couple of years back. Viewers that distrust Spielberg no matter what he does have no use for Schindler's List; Savant thinks that film is a fine and responsible social document ... if one can ignore one sentimentally awful scene near the end.
Some audience feedback on Munich accused it of being anti-Semitic, proving mainly that the most vocal people on a given political topic are going to be one-sided in their opinions. The movie is clearly meant to be an olive branch demonstrating the utter futility of tribal warfare, but I read dozens of angry letters that condemned the film for its suggestion that there might be a story in the Munich massacre beyond the utter rightness of the Israeli cause on all levels, in all situations. Munich is an artful and conscientious attempt to directly address the shifting morality and fragmented emotions that occur when patriots commit crimes in the name of a national cause.
Palestinian terrorists murder eleven members of the Israeli Olympics team at the 1972 games in Munich. Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) retaliates by dispatching teams of assassins to systematically track down and kill the Arabs responsible. Ex-bodyguard Avner (Eric Bana) leads a team of five to Europe, and with the assistance of paid informants starts identifying and eliminating his targets. Both the danger and the emotional pressure ratchet up as the group makes mistakes and starts to question the rightness of their mission. And more doubts emerge as it becomes clear that Avner's team is being hunted by the opposition.
Munich is a crisply directed, thinking man's action film about the real price of political violence, for both the victims and the perpetrators. Writers Tony Kushner and Eric Roth keep the drama centered on the concept of Home: The home the Israelis are defending, the home the Palestinians want back, the home Avner finds in his family of killers and the home-in-exile where he knows he'll never be safe.
The cyclical slaughter of the Israel-Palestine conflict snuffs out innocent lives to demonstrate political principles, and Golda Meir's launching of vengeance squads in response to the heinous Munich massacre expresses a primal need to even the score. The neat and tidy Avner leads his squad into battle with an altruistic resolve, even though they're basically doing the work of Dutch Schultz or Murder Inc.: Slaying people on orders from above.
Murder Inc. might have done a better job. Avner's team believes that by not killing innocent bystanders they will remain moral in their purpose, but an assassin's work is never that clean cut. They almost kill one target's sweet little daughter, and another misjudgment may result in the blinding (we hope not) of a young woman. At least two hits turn into chaotic free-for-alls that better resemble the work of street gangs on a bad night in L.A..
Curiously, the only really dependable team member is the abrasive and slightly obnoxious Steve (Daniel Craig). Carl (Ciar´n Hinds) is a worry wart and Hans (Hanns Zischler) is a forger who suddenly decides to disobey orders and play Audie Murphy. The most endearing member of the murder squad (!), a possible Spielberg figure who makes toys, jeopardizes the unit through technical inexperience ... the team could have used a better bomb-maker.
Spielberg concentrates on Eric Bana's Avner, the noble warrior who leaves his pregnant wife to go forth into top-secret duty. Soldiers all over the world have to do this but Avner must also be his own policy maker. He defies his own handler (Ephraim, a cold-fish patriot played by Geoffrey Rush) by assuming full command of his unit even to the extent of breaking one of his prime directives.
The pressure on Avner increases as he assumes the personal responsibility of choosing information sources he can trust -- and not telling Ephraim who they are. Almost like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, Avner must make secret deals in an informant underground riddled with people evidently playing both sides of any given fence. The script invents (?) a French family of cultured gangsters that's far too reminiscent of the French planters in Apocalypse, but Michael Lonsdale is so impressive as the Don Vito-like leader that Spielberg pulls it off. Francis Coppola could really have used Lonsdale's services in Cambodia!
The Munich script is also very clever when it comes to avoiding details. The workings of Lonsdale's incredibly efficient intelligence operation are left a complete blank. For that matter, we never find out how Avner's team drifts so smoothly in and out of incriminating circumstances in country after country -- Hans must be doing a lot of midnight forgery work we don't see. Avner is provided with the humanizing detail of being a great cook, but we wonder how he gets the receipts demanded for the vast sums he spends. Perhaps he just ignores the admonitions of the clerk back in Jerusalem, like James Bond and "Q."
Munich provides a welcome antidote to forty years' worth of "escapist" spy intrigue movies that assume from the get-go that our murdering thugs are better than the enemy's murdering thugs. James Bond 007 has held screen center far too long with his notion that cool charisma equals moral rightness; even when the movies are good their politics are usually awful.
Although Spielberg isn't into Kafka alienation effects, his movie shows the impractical side of using a license to kill: As soon as agents are out there looking for targets and paying for expert advice on how to locate them, they're competing in a spy industry that favors the most ruthless and least principled. Our team of righteous killers never dreams that the opposition might enjoy protection from the C.I.A., or might hire a deadly female seductress who operates like Modesty Blaise. Alone and formally disavowed by their own country, it's easy to question the agendas of one's handlers ... who tells anyone the truth in these matters?
And I can see a lot of viewers unaccustomed to reaching for deeper meanings, feeling disturbed (or angry) at the film's ultimate message that the efforts of Avner's team have only accomplished a fleeting feeling of retribution. Avner can't finish his full assignment, and even though it's deemed a success (secretly, of course) the only long-term effects are more tradeoff killings and more cash flowing into the international industry for clandestine dirty ops. Spielberg doesn't have a main character deliver an Aesop's Fable sermon, as in the end of the 1975 Three Days of the Condor, but he does finish with the loaded image of the barely-completed World Trade Center. Perhaps some viewers will interpret its presence as a reminder that ruthless action is needed to thwart terror. I think Spielberg's Towers are saying that the policy of punitive payback only results in the creation of armies of new enemies willing to commit abominable acts of terror. The situation has expanded until nobody is secure.
Besides his references to Apocalypse Now Spielberg reaches into the early 70s for some of his images and situations. As soon as Robert uses too small an explosives charge, we're ready and waiting for his next bomb to be grossly overpowered, as in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Cornered on her houseboat, the Dutch assassin bares her breast in a last-ditch effort to distract her enemies, a ploy seen in Madigan but more overtly used in episode four of the Sword of Vengeance "Baby Cart" samurai films. Spielberg is also not above mirroring the famous news image of the hooded Palestinian killer on the balcony in the Israeli Olympic vlllage; seen through a telephoto lens, Avner assumes a similar pose on another balcony.
Spielberg restages the nightmare scenario of the '72 Munich massacre, returning to it several times through the film in a fashion almost identical to the Sergio Leone flashback structure best expressed in Once Upon a Time in the West. It's a way of gradually working up to the horror of the unthinkable. Spielberg almost gets away with using it as an emotional climax for Avner's psychic anguish. The last of these flashbacks is the only part of Munich that strikes me as trite. The gruesome end of the massacre is inter-cut with Avner's fevered orgasm while making love to his wife (Ayelet Zurer), a woman of apparently limitless devotion. To me, this juxtaposition of visual elements infers a cinematic equation that trivializes the "real" event: Slaughtering eleven young men is bad because it personally upsets our hero. We can tell that Avner is already deeply disturbed about his secret mission, and we already identify with him as much as we need to.
Universal's Two-Disc Collector's Edition of Munich may be hard to find; I saw none in a Best Buy store the other day and unless I don't know what I'm doing, Amazon.com only carries the single-disc versions as well. Universal may be engineering a quiet recall ... ? The first disc is the expected perfect-quality transfer of the film. It has no extras except an introduction by Steven Spielberg that I skipped when it started to show scenes from the film. The enhanced 2:35 image is as good as DVD gets, as is the sound.
Disc two has a multi-part Laurent Bouzereau interview docu that covers the film from six different angles. It's essentially a high-class making-of EPK piece that presents the filmmakers' viewpoint on all things along with harmonious statements from his actors and key crew creatives. There's almost no critical discussion here, which is a little disappointing after hearing disturbing statements from some newspaper pundits, such as one L.A. Times article that told us that one Israeli hit squad flat-out killed the wrong person. Some detractors claim that Spielberg's book source is almost all fiction, and compare Munich to the fuzzy-fact filmmaking of Oliver Stone.
But this is the right place to learn how they made the movie. Spielberg has honed his production crew to a point where he can shoot an entire picture all over Europe in only a couple of months. As filming in the actual locations, including Israel, was nigh impossible, Malta and Bucharest stood in beautifully for several different European locales. Cameraman Janusz Kaminski distinguished between various cities by using different color schemes, a process nicely demonstrated. Spielberg and his designers talk about the task of re-creating the not-so-distant past of early 70s Europe. Not only are the cars correct, Spielberg adopted a 70s look that included more zoom shots than he'd ever used before. He tips his hat to his key influence by mentioning that he watched Fred Zinnemann's The Day of the Jackal several times. Finally, one of the designers cops to the notion that the color red was associated with each killing, creating a blood theme as a through-line. When the little piano-playing girl wears a red coat, we're reminded of the other little girl in the red-tinted coat in Schindler's List.
The mini-docus are all there is; there are no trailers, teasers, galleries, or other extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Spielberg introduction; multi-part Laurent Bouzereau docu
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 13, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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